Arthur (Albert Finney) is nobody's fool, or so he likes to think, he may have the same factory job as countless others in this Nottingham workplace, he may socialise with them when the weekend arrives, but he is not about to settle down into the lives his parents have, he feels he is better than that. He works on the lathe, he'll smoke a cigarette when he feels like it, he will break up the monotony with a prank to amuse himself, not work too hard or the bosses will dock his wages for showing everyone up and look forward to his time off when he can drink himself into oblivion or spend some time between the sheets at the home of his married lover Brenda (Rachel Roberts).
It's not the greatest of existences, and all who watched Albert Finney’s great performance as the arrogant Arthur at the time it was released would find it speaking to them completely, or it would if they had the same or similar experiences. By the time the nineteen-sixties arrived, the Angry Young Man brigade had been making their mark on British culture for two or three years, but mostly in theatre and literature, yet the Woodfall company set up by playwright John Osborne and director Tony Richardson were trying to bring this to a new medium where they were guaranteed a popular audience: the cinema. By this point they already had Look Back in Anger opening in picture palaces.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, from fellow AYM Alan Sillitoe, opened within months of another Osborne adaptation, The Entertainer, which entertained a Northern milieu as well, only that was on the coast so could claim some chintzy glamour by association with the seaside: this was set in drab dejection where the younger generation were well aware the "good old days" of their parents' youth was a lie, since they were living through what had barely changed in far too long. All that was new were the television sets the families had bought for the Coronation and now kept them in at night, leaving their offspring to visit the public houses and drink away the inherited miseries they were afflicted with.
Finney embodied this bone-deep dissatisfaction to a tee, one of the defining film performances of the twentieth century and one that was so close to the truth that it now comes across almost as a send-up, so resolutely and aggressively Northern does he appear. What saves it from the effects of so many spoofs down the years was the conviction in Finney to deliver a character who may have been the hero, but he was not going to wheedle his way into your affections if he could help it: Arthur genuinely didn't care if you liked him or not, and maybe even respect was not something he sought. His disgust with those around him and their perceived complacency created a vivid, boisterous and rebellious nature, he’s a real "I'm OK, you're not OK" personality type and adheres to this like a faith.
The thing is, you have a sneaking suspicion he has a point, and these days from birth to death that are put up with rather than appreciated are no way to live. We are used to the concept of "quality of life" now, and recognise that entertainment is a major part of that, as is being loved and loving in return, and if none of those apply to you then you're not having the best of times, but here Arthur wants all those things and is aggrieved he is not getting his fair share. The trouble with that is he doesn't go about it in the best way, picking on people who embody the drawbacks in his world, and when he does try to build a relationship is trying it out with two women, Brenda, who he gets pregnant to her horror and social shame, and Doreen (Shirley Anne Field) who is more of a "prize" but he cannot find it in himself to commit to her either. This is because it means settling down here, inevitable now, and we see Arthur's behaviour as that of a drowning man clinging to any freedom he can. So influential it's difficult to appreciate these days, fortunately Finney was one for the ages here. Music by Johnny Dankworth.
[Available as part of the BFI's Woodfall box set on Blu-ray and DVD, which includes these fully restored films: